Viet Nam News
by Nguyễn Văn Thọ
Although the fast-food restaurant owned by Thanh was located in the outskirts of a German town, customers crowded in for lunch in great numbers as there were many offices, factories and small workshops nearby. To serve them more comfortably, one day the owner had to hire an assistant to cook and deliver food.
September is an inter-season month with oak leaves turning yellow. Poor Thanh, as his assistant’s driving licence had been recently confiscated by the police, he had to deliver food by himself. One afternoon he took four rations of chicken dumplings to an office on Vonter Street. Away from the kitchen, he could enjoy fresh breezes in the open air and the fragrant smells of flowers and blossoms from roadside orchards. At the customers’ office gate, Thanh found an old man waiting for him outside to receive the food.
“Thank you very much,” Thanh said to the white-haired old man in a fashionable Hermes black suit after getting a five-euro tip.
Surprisingly, this man kept on staring at him for a long while before stepping in.
“Have a good lunch, sir,” Thanh added when he seemed to perceive some strange features on the old man’s face.
“Your restaurant is very near here, isn’t it?” he asked Thanh.
“Yes, sir! It’s Mai Thanh Restaurant, 23rd Gut Sahndne Street. We have all kinds of delicious food,” said Thanh, giving him a card.
“Thanks a lot,” the old man said before going upstairs.
Of course, Thanh forgot that meeting completely until the well-dressed white-haired old man appeared upstairs inside the restaurant one weekend.
“Please, take a seat here with a good view over the street below,” Thanh told him when he moved a chair closer to an unoccupied table.
“So, you’re working today, sir?”
“Oh no no, I have a day off like anybody else,” he replied. “Please give me a bowl of crab soup first.”
“At your service, sir. A bowl of crab soup for table four right now,” Thanh urged his waiter in the kitchen.
“May have I a brief chat with you?” asked the old man.
“Of course, sir,” Thanh moved a chair towards him across his table.
“My name is Stephan,” the old man said.
* * *
That meeting between Thanh and Stephan was unforgettable for the former, although he didn’t pay much heed to Stephan’s questions about Thanh’s parents and his secondary then tertiary qualifications. Thanh had an MA degree in business course in Germany. Finding that Thanh was Vietnamese, not Chinese, Korean or Japanese, Stephan appeared thrilled.
“I’m badly in need of a sample of Vietnamese gene,” Stephan told him one day in his shop. “Precisely speaking, we need a little saliva and some cells from your mouth. We’ll pay you one thousand euros for your contribution to our scientific research,” he went on.
“What do you need it for?” Thanh asked, but before Stephan even answered he decided he didn’t care, and just wanted the money.
A week after Stephan’s suggestions, Thanh received several phone calls from a research institute. He saw a shining Mercedes abruptly stop in front of his restaurant.
Getting out of the car were two pretty girls and one kid. They showed him an agreement with terms and conditions for him to read and sign. Finally, one of the girls took a few cotton sticks out of a small box then swabbed Thanh’s saliva. After that the other with curly hair, shapely breasts, sweet-smelling breath and tanned complexion, who spoke in broken German, took some tissue out of his mouth.
As a result, one thousand euros was in his account two days later.
Three years then elapsed. He almost forgot the gene donation. At first more and more customers from the office of the white-haired old man came to Thanh’s place regularly, then their orders reduced noticeably with every passing day. At last, one afternoon when he passed Stephan’s institute he only saw a group of lorries going out, one after another. He stopped his car in front of it to find out why they were leaving.
“Goodbye, my dear restaurant manager!” said a girl in a lorry, one who had previously taken his gene samples.
“Why are you leaving so abruptly?”
“We’re going home to the USA. Good luck and be well,” she said in what was now fluent German.
Inside the building, except for a security guard and some people in plain clothes who were putting luggage into a big container lorry, no other personnel could be seen.
“This office has gone bankrupt perhaps,” Thanh whispered to himself.
* * *
A few days later, rumour had it that a tiger was seen at large outside the research institute. The Zweiterhand newspaper carried some interviews of several residents of the area about it.
“I saw a big tiger at Lake Maria,” said one interviewee. “It’s a great danger to the swans swimming in it.”
“Two swans’ bodies were found floating on the lake surface,” chimed in a young man.
“I saw a tiger wandering around here,” claimed another.
That morning Thanh, on his way to make a food delivery, saw many policemen tying a yellow cordon across the street with the warning “Halt,” while a few others, rifles in hand, in uniforms bearing the image of a panda, milled around.
“We’ve been told that there’s a tiger at large around here,” said the police chief.
“It turns out the institute was home to many wild animals. Is there any connection with my gene samples?” Thanh asked himself.
Leaving his restaurant Thanh returned home to his old two-storey villa surrounded by an orchard laden with peaches, apples and pears, built during the time of East Germany. The building faced a pine and oak grove in the foreground and a wide mountain range in the background.
Opening the orchard gate, he heard a greeting in a low and hoarse voice, “Good evening, sir!”
“Who’s that?” he asked, turning round.
No soul could be seen on the deserted path.
He pushed it wide.
“You’re home later than usual,” said the same voice. He was shocked when he saw a big tiger standing beside an apple tree with brilliant big eyes.
“Don’t worry, I mean no harm to you,” it said.
Obviously, it was the tiger’s voice.
* * *
It spoke German, with pronunciation far better than Thanh’s.
It seemed his genes had been transplanted into a Siberian tiger’s genome, in the same way as animals such as rabbits, sheep, horses, pigs even eagles. The research institute had been closed for good due to a recently-passed law on this kind of research.
The successful research on grafting human tissues to animals paved the way for a mountain of jobs for both American and British scientists.
“The research institute succeeded in tiger-human tissue graft,” said the tiger. “I’m lucky I was left here and not taken to the USA, as the staff accidentally let me out. I’ve got the strength of a tiger and the average intelligence of a human. I can break the leg of a cow, yet I’m fully aware of joy and sadness, love and hatred,” it added.
“How did you escape from the lab?” Thanh asked.
“It’s a long story. Since I left I’ve been living in the city forests,” it said.
“But how could you find a place to shelter?” Thanh said in surprise.
“Very simple! I consulted the city directory in a phone booth near Mother Maria Park and found the numbers of both your restaurant and house.”
“Yet why me? Why not a German?”
“Germans! There are lots of German hunters here who would bring me to the police right away.”
“I’d do the same.”
“No, you won’t. If they discover we have the same genes, they would arrest you at once,” it laughed. “After two days in hunger, I was forced to kill and eat two swans. In fact, I prefer your dumplings to swan meat. Allow me to stay in your garden for a short time until the heat is off,” it went on.
Thanh listened sympathetically to the poor animal’s proposal.
“Come what may, no harm will come to me,” he whispered to himself.
“I’ll let you live temporarily in my basement with one condition: during the daytime, you must stay there in total silence, okay?”
“Gladly! Many thanks for your kindness.”
After that it followed Thanh to the basement.
* * *
Every day, Thanh took home a big packet of noodles with chicken and a large bowl of water for it to enjoy.
“You’d better have a name. I’ll call you Mãnh, okay?”
A day later, when he entered the basement to get some things he was overwhelmed by the stench of the tiger. In late evening, after letting Mãnh eat, he told him, “You must have a shower every night because of your smelly hair. Tomorrow is my birthday,” he went on. “I’ll have a party with lots of guests, including my sweetheart, who’ll leave her campus to stay here for a few weeks. Obviously, she shouldn’t have to smell you, so try to keep your body and place clean. In daytime you mustn’t leave your hiding place. At night you may go out. Is that okay?”
“I agree,” he nodded.
All of a sudden, he found Mãnh weeping.
“What’s the matter with you? Nostalgia for the forest?” Thanh asked.
“No, nothing at all.”
That afternoon, after delivering food to customers he returned home late because he had to go shopping for the party. Reaching home, he took all of the bought things in, except for four big carp left outside the gate. Suddenly, he saw a big bear eating one of the carp. Before he could do anything, Mãnh attacked the bear from behind. Defeated, it darted away immediately.
* * *
One afternoon before his birthday party, he went to the city’s main railway station to welcome Hà, his sweetheart.
From the basement Mãnh cast a glimpse over the quiet garden. In silence, he waited for Thanh to come home. Some last apple leaves began falling down, leaving only red ripe apples on the branches. They all looked like huge trees in full bloom. Suddenly Mãnh saw a Mercedes stop in front of the main door of the building very close to his hiding place. Getting out was a young girl whose fragrant scent wafted all over the garden.
“What a beautiful girl!” exclaimed Mãnh.
He always looked forward to the dark so that at nightfall Thanh would open its door with a bowl of chicken noodles for him to enjoy beside the apple tree. When he heard the sound of the basement lock echoing, Mãnh was well aware that his master had gone upstairs. In consequence, he could take a few relaxed strolls around the garden before having a rest by the apple tree.
During the second night after Hà’s arrival, Mãnh saw a bright light in Thanh’s upstairs bedroom and heard fits of laughter.
* * *
The garden fell silent at night. The rustle of dead leaves, the crackle of dry bark and the sound of falling fruit could be heard clearly. Suddenly a fit of giggles resounded from Thanh’s bedroom when Mãnh had his eyes half-closed. Mãnh jumped up to the balcony and took a glimpse inside. In the dim light, he saw the loving couple embracing each other tightly on the white mattress. Greatly excited he roared deafeningly as if the quiet sky had been torn apart while the whole area was sinking to a deep sleep.
The terrible din echoing from the garden below made Thanh and his darling wake up. She rushed to the window and looked down.
“Oh my God, a huge tiger!” she cried loudly before collapsing into her lover’s arms.
* * *
“I mean no harm to you. But, you must leave here right now, before sunrise,” Thanh said to the tiger still lying at the apple tree. “Tomorrow morning, this area will be blockaded and searched with hunting dogs due to your roar.”
After saying so, he ran upstairs to give his sweetheart a sleeping pill then left her asleep in bed. At once he ran downstairs to the orchard.
“That means I have to go away immediately,” said the tiger.
“Yes, of course. You’d better go to the borderland forest in the Alpen range.”
“Oh no, impossible! Packs of wolves there might tear me into pieces.”
“Okay, return to Siberia your native place. It’ll take you a week to reach there,” Thanh suggested.
“I’m afraid I would be attacked and killed by native tigers there. They’re all much stronger than me. Also, I can hardly stand the cold because I’m accustomed to this warm weather.”
“Hey, Mãnh why don’t you take shelter in a small forest under the control of my close friend in Viet Nam, where there are only bears in cages ready for bile extraction.”
“But, where is Viet Nam?”
“My native country! Wait a moment. I’ll take my computer down here for us to check through the Google Maps,” Thanh said to Mãnh. “But firstly, you must go through European jungles, then Mongolia and China before arriving in Viet Nam. My friend’s forest is used as an eco-tour safari with animals such as wild pigs, hedgehogs, horses, goats and so on which tourists like to visit. It’s there you’ll be a ranger for him. Surely, nobody would chase you away under his protection,” Thanh explained.
“How can I meet him?” asked Mãnh.
“No problem! I’ll ring him up so that he and I may welcome you to that forest.”
“How kind of you!” said Mãnh.
“Oh, that’s alright. Anyhow, we’ve got the same genes. You saved my life in my orchard that day,” Thanh said.
After that Thanh returned to his bedroom.
Before Mãnh’s long and arduous trip, Thanh put into Mãnh’s haversack a lot of instant noodle packets, many salami sausages and bottles of water. Thanh saw his friend off as far as the city forest. Both said their farewells in tears. Thanh returned home with a heavy heart.
Thanh’s reckoned it would take Mãnh about 25 days to reach the destination. As for Hà, she would resume her studies at university. Thanh would leave for the safari park in Viet Nam the same day. Thanh sent a message to his friend in Viet Nam saying, “You will soon have a surprising gift.”
Shortly after, Thanh arrived at his close friend’s eco-park after not having seen him for four years.
His friend was taken aback when Thanh told him that his gene-bearing tiger would come to Vie Nam one day.
“Oh dear! Why didn’t you tell me earlier? The tiger might have been slaughtered for traditional medicine,” he said.
“What has happened to it?” Thanh asked.
“I heard local poachers had caught a tiger. For the time being, it remains alive because their trying to find a higher bidder. I was going to buy some tiger-bone jellies from them today actually.”
“My God! Don’t you know it’s a half-human creature?”
“How could I possibly know that you blithering idiot?”
At once they drove along a forest path near to the slaughterhouse in a car. After a half-hour ride they got a glade with a clear stream near a few poorly-rigged huts. Two cruel-looking hunters took them to a big cage covered with twigs. Inside the large wooden box lay a weary tiger with bloody hair and four wounded legs.
“Oh dear, I’m very sorry, Mãnh. I’ve arrived here rather late, haven’t I?” Thanh said, sobbing.
To the surprise of everybody, the tiger seemed to wish to stand up. But his efforts were in vain.
“Dear friend, I made it so close,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“My dear Mãnh, I feel lucky that you’re still alive,” Thanh shouted happily.
“Yes, I got here as I was told to. However, sooner or later, I’ll perish here soon. The die is cast,” he said, trying to raise his head higher. “Our plan was meaningless. Goodbye to you all!” he added, trying to move one of his fore paws in vain.
All of a sudden, he roared deafeningly for the last time. His blood oozed profusely out of his mouth and he breathed his last.
Thanh fainted. The death of the poor animal made him deeply moved.
“If he had remained as a normal tiger, he wouldn’t have had this tragic death,” Thanh said when he came to.
Unexpectedly, while Thanh was moaning mournfully, Mãnh’s eyes slowly closed for good under the blue sky while his whiskers seemed to stir gently.
Translated by Văn Minh